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What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide
by Jana Riess
Jossey-Bass, San Francisco
183 pages, $14.95

Seeking guidance from a petite blonde wielding a pointy stick might not be the first option for those walking the spiritual path, but Jana Riess argues otherwise.

In the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy’s friend Xander reveals, "When it's dark and I'm all alone and I'm scared or freaked out or whatever, I always think, 'What would Buffy do?'" It is from this premise that Riess builds her book, making a compelling argument for taking a second look at the popular television show about a teenage girl who is destined to slay vampires, demons, killer robots, homicidal insects, and any other evil that crosses her path. Riess doesn't see campy science fiction, but "a classic medieval morality play--only with skimpier clothes, wittier dialogue, and cutting-edge alternative music."

The show raises questions such as "How can we learn to choose forgiveness over vengeance? What does it mean to share power? When is disobedience a spiritual virtue?" Riess explores these questions and seeks the deeper spiritual meaning in the show. Chapters tackle topics ranging from self-sacrifice and death to the power of humor and friendship. Spirituality here is not limited to Christianity (though the power of the cross and holy water are familiar conceits in vampire mythology), but includes tenets of Buddhism, Wiccan beliefs, and references to Judaism, as well as other religions. Quotes from religious and secular texts highlight the points Riess makes in each chapter, offering the reader ideas to contemplate further.

An entire chapter is dedicated to the idea of "humor as power," and Riess has obviously learned this lesson well from the series. Her lively prose pulls the reader forward, and chapter heads like "Be a Hero, Even When You’d Rather Go to the Mall" invite the reader to look at the less serious side of self-sacrifice. Buffy, a show that dealt with death almost weekly, worked hard to achieve a balance between gravity and levity, a feat that Riess accomplishes handily.

The idea of finding spirituality in our everyday lives is one of the most powerful messages of the book. "Although many of us labor under the romantic illusion that true spirituality is something that only solitary monks sitting lotus-legged in a desert chanting 'Om' can cultivate, the fact is that the vast majority of us don't have the luxury of solitary contemplation," Riess writes in her discussion of the power of friendship. Not only do we walk our spiritual paths in the company of friends and family, but we can learn about these paths in sometimes unexpected places. If you take your spirituality where you find it, you may find in Buffy important lessons on life and death, forgiveness and redemption, and hair and make-up.

For those who are unfamiliar with the show, the book includes an episode guide, a character guide, and extensive research notes, as well as an interview with actress Eliza Dushku, who portrayed Faith. For the Buffy fan, the book offers an intriguing new perspective on the Buffyverse and the girl who "saved the world, a lot."

Jennifer E. Garrett
Originally published in the fall 2004 issue of Wellesley magazine.

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Other reviews:
Christianity Today
Salt Lake Tribune

©2003-2004 Jennifer E. Garrett